Mike Hessman's journey back to the majors, a story of perseverance, patience and triumph
Detroit —The rush of emotion was so deep, so intense, so freakin’ fantastic, it literally buckled him.
“I broke down,” he said.
When Mike Hessman walked off the field at old Shea Stadium in New York on Oct. 3, 2010, he figured he’d seen his last day in the major leagues. All told, he spent 20 years climbing levels in the minor leagues, spending a year in Japan, playing winter ball in Venezuela and Mexico. Twenty years. And his Baseball Reference page shows just 109 games in the big leagues, 250 plate appearances.
And this is the all-time minor league home run king — 433 bombs. A real-life Crash Davis. And all it got him was three all-too brief stints with three big-league clubs: 48 games with the Braves between 2003 and 2004, 29 games with the Tigers between 2007 and 2008, and 32 games with the Mets at age 32 in 2010.
He went to Japan in 2011. He played Triple-A ball in the Houston system in 2012, then in Cincinnati’s in 2013 — banging out 50 home runs in those two seasons without as much as a September call-up. He came back to the Tigers and to Toledo, finishing out his playing career in 2015. He set the home run record and accepted a coaching job — hitting coach at short-season Class A Connecticut – a la Crash Davis.
One journey over, another beginning — but, really, what were the odds this new path would lead him back to the big leagues? Would it take another 20 years?
Then came the call two weeks ago. Tigers assistant hitting coach Jose Cruz, Jr., was leaving. He’d taken the head baseball coaching job at his alma mater, Rice University.
“It brought me to tears,” Hessman said in a phone interview with The Detroit News on Friday. “I didn’t know if it was ever going to happen again. Being able to get that phone call, I broke down with Princey (Toledo manager Tom Prince) and Doug Bochtler (pitching coach).
“So much emotion after spending so much time and effort dedicated to the game. To finally get a phone call and get a chance to come up here, it’s pretty surreal.”
Bringing experience and empathy
His climb up the coaching ladder was much swifter. He was hitting coach at Low-A West Michigan in 2017, at Double-A Erie in 2018 and at Toledo since 2019. And now, finally back in the big leagues assisting Tigers hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh.
“My career has been just a grinder, you know,” Hessman said. “Grinding in the minor leagues for 20 years trying to get that cup of coffee. The goal is to be at the highest level of the game. Obviously, I didn’t have that much time as a player there. But the love for the game that I have, I wanted to get back to that level.”
He’s 43 years old and been in professional baseball since the Braves drafted him in the 15th round out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California in 1996. He’s bringing the wisdom and hard lessons that come with 9,170 professional plate appearances, 462 home runs, 3,730 total bases, 2,552 strikeouts and being taken off a 40-man roster eight different times.
What he is bringing the hitters in the Tigers organization, above all else, is empathy.
“Being at the lowest of lows and having some pretty good runs, as well — I’ve been there,” he said. “I truly understand how hard this game is and how hard hitting is. That’s the part of the game that made me nuts when I was playing.
“When they get frustrated, I completely relate to them and I know exactly what they’re going through. Because I did it for 20 years. I basically struggled for 20 years, you know? I can relate to how hard it is.”
He’s also immersed himself in the data and technology, something he wishes was around when he was climbing up through the ranks.
“I’m not taking anything away from the coaching I had,” he said. “Larry Parrish and Bull (former Toledo and Tigers hitting coach Leon Durham), and other coaches I had taught me tons of stuff, stuff that was way ahead of the times. But in terms of having the feedback and the numbers validating everything that’s going on, I definitely would’ve gotten involved in that.
“I would have used all of it. Maybe it could’ve got me over the hump (laughs).”
Hessman is still young enough and strong enough to step into the cage and give real-time object lessons — and, if you’re not careful, steal some of your money.
“I still do (take some swings),” he said. “In Toledo I’d have little competitions off the tee with guys, get a little trash talk going. I’ll challenge them on tee work and barrel control — hitting line drives all over the place. I got on the field down there and took BP.
“But I choose my days (laughing). I hit on days when the ball is flying. I’ve got to play the elements a little more now. But there are times when I’m champing at the bit to get in there, like, I want to hit a little bit today. My body doesn’t like it the day after, though.”
Hessman might as well have signed a player contract last year. He got so many reps in the field during intrasquad games at the alternate site, he literally wore out his meniscus.
“I didn’t take any at-bats from our players but I was playing defense in the top and bottom half of the innings,” he said. “Ended up having to get surgery in the offseason. My mind said I could do it. My body disagreed.”
A story of triumph
Quick aside: Did you know Hessman played all nine positions in a game for the Mud Hens in 2009? Oh yeah, that happened. He is 6-5, weighed 215 pounds in his playing days and was no utility player. He was corner infielder.
But Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish came to him near the end of the season and asked him if he wanted to play all nine positions?
“He brought it up to me, like, it was never on my radar,” Hessman said. “He knew it was getting toward the end of my career and he wanted to do something fun for the end of the year. He asked if I wanted to play all nine and I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Do something we can talk about later on.”
He caught the first inning and then ended up blowing a save opportunity in the last.
“I got the loss,” he said. “That still stings. It got to where it was a close game and LP was like, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, give me the ball, let’s go. I got two quick outs, gave up a base hit, then there was an error and they scored a run.
“LP came out and said, ‘Well, what do you think? Should I take you out now and let them give you a standing ovation?’ Pardon my French, but I was like, ‘(Bleep) no. I want to finish this.’ He said, ‘Ok then,’ and turned and walked off.”
Hessman got the last out.
“I wasn’t coming out of the game,” he said.
Kind of a metaphor for his career. Failure and frustration can be career killers in this game. The ability to process and persevere through it either builds your character or crushes it. Who knows that better than Hessman?
“I got frustrated at times, everybody does in the game,” he said. “Everyone’s got their story. But for me, I never let it linger or got a Bitter Bob attitude about everything. As long as I could go out and control what I could control, then so be it. I wasn’t a guy who burned a lot of bridges or anything like that, and I think that’s kept me in the game a long time.”
Still, it’s remarkable that not once in 20 years did a team give him an extended opportunity in the big leagues. A guy with that much raw power.
“You can be frustrated that you didn’t get a chance to string 300-400 at-bats to see what could’ve happened,” Hessman said. “But everything works out for a reason. I was able to do things in this game because I wasn’t in the big leagues — like winning a bronze medal for Team USA in the Olympics.
“Everything works out for a reason and I’ve really enjoyed the journey. I love doing what I do and I’m eager to help these guys out at this level.”